Mary McLeod Bethune was an extraordinary woman, an educator, and a civil rights leader. A child of former slaves, she grew from poverty and ignorance into a woman who changed her world. Most of all, she lights the way even after death.
Mary was the fifteenth of seventeen children born to former slaves. Most of her siblings had been born into slavery. Born on a rice and cotton farm near Mayesville, South Carolina in 1875. Mary’s mother, Patsy, worked for her former master. Her father, Samuel McLeod, worked the farm (house pictured below).
The family worked hard to buy the farm. They put Mary in the fields when she was five years old. By the time she was nine, she could pick two-hundred-fifty pounds of cotton per day.
As a child, Mary would accompany her mother to deliver the laundry to the “white people.” One day, curious about the white children’s toys, she picked up a book. The white child snatched it away from her because she couldn’t read. She decided she would learn to read.
A one-room black schoolhouse opened in Mayesville. Mary entered school at ten. She walked several miles each day (some say 4 miles) to attend the Trinity Mission School, run by the Presbyterian Board of Missions of Freedmen. Since she was the only McLeod child to attend school, she tried to teach her siblings after school.
She received a scholarship and continued her education at Scotia Seminary for Negro Girls (now Barber-Scotia College), a boarding school in Concord, North Carolina. In 1893, she graduated from Scotia.
From there she spent two years at the Dwight Moody’s Institute for Home and Foreign Missions (also known as Moody Bible Institute) in Chicago. She hoped to go to Africa as a missionary. But no church would sponsor her. Undaunted, she became a teacher. Her belief that that education provided the key to racial advancement led her on a journey to light the way.
Mary worked at her former elementary school in Sumter County for a short time. In 1896, she began teaching at Haines Normal and Industrial Institute in Augusta, Georgia.
Inspired by Lucy Craft Laney’s educational philosophy, Mary developed a similar philosophy. After a year at Haines, the Presbyterian mission transferred Mary to the Kindell Institute in Sumter, South Carolina.
She met Albertus Bethune, a fellow teacher, at Kindell and married him in 1898. They had a son, Albert, in 1899.
Seeking better economic opportunities, they moved to Georgia, then to Palatka, Florida, and in 1904 to Daytona, Florida.
There she founded the Daytona Educational and Industrial School for Negro Girls.
Her husband left her and her son in 1907. They never divorced. On the 1910 Census record, Mary McLeod Bethune listed herself as a widow. Albertus died in 1918.
In October 1904, Mary rented a house next to Daytona’s dump. The house became the Daytona Educational and Industrial School for Negro Girls. She made desks out of discarded crates. Charities and parents of her students helped her get other supplies. She started teaching five girls aged six to twelve, and her son Albert.
They made ink for pens from elderberry juice, and pencils from burned wood. By the end of the year, she was teaching thirty students. The school grew to more than 250 students.
In 1931, the Methodist Church helped the merger of her school with the boys’ Cookman Institute, forming the Bethune-Cookman College, a coeducational junior college.
By 1941, the college had developed a four-year curriculum and achieved full college status.
In 2006, they added the first Master’s degree program. The College achieved university-status in 2007, officially becoming Bethune-Cookman University.
Mary worked tirelessly to improve black lives. A few of her accomplishments include:
- Opening the first black hospital in Daytona, Florida in 1911
- Served as the president of the Florida chapter of the National Association of Colored Women then served as the National leader.
- Founded the National Council of Negro Women
- Served Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harry Truman on councils, at conferences, and as a leader on FDR’s unofficial “Black Cabinet”
- Served as Special Assistant to the Secretary of War for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and helped establish a training school and recruiting Black women for army officer training.
Her impressive accomplishments are too many to detail in this blog post. Read more about how Mary lights the way even after death at biography.com or nationalww2museum.org or her books and papers.
Mary worked to better the lives of her fellow blacks, particularly women, her entire life. She died of a heart attack on May 18, 1955.
She was the first African-American to have a national monument dedicated to her on public land in Washington DC.
Postage stamps, Schools, public parks, and streets have honored her. And Bethune-Cookman University continues to educate young people.
The Legacy of Mary McLeod Bethune
Her last words shine a light forward. These words are a tiny sample of what she said her legacy was:
• I LEAVE YOU LOVE. Love builds. It is positive and helpful.…From the last will and testament of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune
• I LEAVE YOU HOPE.… Theirs will be a better world. This I believe with all my heart.
• I LEAVE YOU THE CHALLENGE OF DEVELOPING CONFIDENCE IN ONE ANOTHER. As long as Negroes are hemmed into racial blocks by prejudice and pressure, it will be necessary for them to band together for economic betterment….
• I LEAVE YOU A THIRST FOR EDUCATION. Knowledge is the prime need of the hour….
• I LEAVE YOU RESPECT FOR THE USES OF POWER. We live in a world which respects power above all things. Power, intelligently directed, can lead to more freedom. Unwisely directed, it can be a dreadful, destructive force….
• I LEAVE YOU FAITH. Faith is the first factor in a life devoted to service. Without faith, nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible….
• I LEAVE YOU RACIAL DIGNITY. I want Negroes to maintain their human dignity at all costs. We, as Negroes, must recognize that we are the custodians as well as the heirs of a great civilization….
• I LEAVE YOU A DESIRE TO LIVE HARMONIOUSLY WITH YOUR FELLOW MEN. The problem of color is worldwide….
• I LEAVE YOU FINALLY A RESPONSIBILITY TO OUR YOUNG PEOPLE. The world around us really belongs to youth, for youth will take over its future management. Our children must never lose their zeal for building a better world….
• Faith, courage, brotherhood, dignity, ambition, responsibility — these are needed today as never before.
In my humble opinion, Mary McLeod Bethune was an extraordinary woman whose greatest legacy was how she lights the way even after death. Read her full last will and testament to appreciate the impact of the light she shines. If you enjoyed this post, please let me know in the comments below. You can read other posts on strong women including Hattie Canty and Marie Van Brittan Brown.
(Photo Credits: 1. Portrait: Brawley, Benjamin Griffith (1919) Women of Achievement, Chicago: Woman’s American Baptist Home Mission Society, Public Domain, 2. Family home: from the Florida State Archives Photographic Collection. Retrieved October 22, 2007..Transferred from en.wikipedia by SreeBot, Public Domain, 3.Mary McLeod Bethune with a line of girls from her school (ca. 1905) Public Domain, 4. Statue of Mary McLeod Bethune in Lincoln Park Image=Flickr user Ezra Wolfe – Sculpture=Berks, Robert, Public Domain.)